Music Care Stories Series: Bearing Witness to the Power of Music

by Sarah Pearson

how one CD ended suffering for a hospice resident


Science and research continually proves that music care works. It’s music care stories, however, that help us understand why.

The Music Care Stories Series is new to this blog, and will feature interviews, guest writers, and other narratives from the front lines of caregiving. Told from the perspective of caregivers, care recipients, musicians, health care professionals and family members, these stories capture the unforgettable moments where music steps in and changes lives. These stories reveal the magic and the mystery of music care. Do you have a story you’d like to share? Email [email protected] with a short description of your experience. We will determine how best to share your story in this series. Last fall, Rami Shami of the Dorothy Ley Hospice Centre in Etobicoke, ON, told the Room 217 Foundation about an extraordinary music care moment. It took place in the final hours of one hospice resident’s life, and has changed the whole centre’s view on the importance of music care.

“We had a resident in the hospice who was in a bit of a state,” Shami said. While all patients admitted to a hospice are expected to die within weeks, the staff are typically able to make the residents comfortable with the right palliative pain treatment. However, for this one woman, nothing seemed to work.

“She had been in a lot of pain and agitation for two weeks,” Shami recalled. “We were at our limit of how much we could offer her.”

Witnessing such pain in another human is distressing itself. “It was a struggle for the nurses to see this much suffering, especially since we couldn’t do anything anymore.”

The staff tried everything to make her comfortable, and to support her in the transition to death. They asked the family to call her, to tell her it was okay to let go now, giving her permission to pass on. “Usually the person dies very quickly [when the family calls], but even that didn’t work.”

Then someone on staff remembered music. The hospice had been recently gifted some Room 217 CDs, which were still unwrapped. Desperate to try anything for this woman, staff decided they might try these CDs. The discs were quickly retried and opened, and popped into a player by the suffering woman’s bed. They pressed play.

“Literally after 5 minutes of music,” said Shami, “her agitation had decreased by 90%, and her expression and moaning of pain had declined by 90%.”

The staff were dumbfounded by the sudden transformation of this resident’s pain state. “We couldn’t believe this was happening right before our eyes,” Shami described.
“The experience was very stark. She was dead within half an hour.”

The Dorothy Lea Hospice has since expanded their music collection. Recognizing the vital necessity of music in the dying process, they have invested in resources, drawn on volunteer musicians, and are partnering with a University of Toronto research project into music in palliative care.

“We have no other explanation except that it is the music,” Shami said about this one resident’s dying experience. “We bore witness to it.”


As told by Rami Shami of the Dorothy Ley Hospice to Room 217.